Opinion: HST and the invalidity of the “everybody hates it” argument

By Thomas Falcone

The HST may be one of the most unpopular initiatives to emanate from a BC provincial government since the infamous Fast Ferries.

The BC Liberals have now decided to hold a referendum next year to determine the fate of the hated consumption tax. But this brings up an interesting question: how important is a law’s popularity in determining its validity?

There are many things about the HST to dislike. First of all, it’s a consumption tax that everybody pays regardless of their socio-economic status. Consider this situation: two people are purchasing an essential household appliance (a washing machine, or a refrigerator). One of them makes $10,000 a year, and the other makes $100,000 a year – the appliance costs $500. They will both have to pay 12% tax on their purchase, which is $60. To the appliance buyer that earns $100,000 a year $60 is a fairly insignificant amount of money, but $60 probably means a lot to somebody who only makes $10,000 annually.

Something about this seems morally amiss to me and I think suggesting that “the HST is fundamentally unfair” is a far more powerful argument than saying “everybody hates the HST.”

Sometimes governments make just laws that are unpopular, and sometimes governments rescind popular laws that are unjust. In the era of Barack Obama, most Americans like to think that they have made incredible progress in the realm of racial equality since the bad old days of segregation. But there was a time when most Americans harboured a deep racism. The 1954 Supreme Court ruling that ended public segregation – Brown V. Board of Education – would probably not have passed a referendum. The ruling was very unpopular and caused widespread unrest, but I think it’s safe to say that few people would consider the ruling unjust because it was unpopular.

One of the most important but unappreciated things about life in a liberal democracy like ours is that we don’t put everything to a vote, and we shouldn’t.

The only thing that is scarier than the prospect of an absence of democracy is the tyranny of the majority. Just because most people are against something, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it – and just because most people support something, doesn’t mean we should do it. The scale of validity our society uses to judge the merit of laws should weigh how just they are and not how popular they are.

So yes, the HST may be a very bad idea. But I don’t think we should argue it’s a bad idea just because most of us don’t like it.

Thomas Falcone is pursuing a double minor B.A. in political science and philosophy. He has been a student at Kwantlen since 2006.

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